By FRED SHUSTER
LOS ANGELES – Former Los Angeles City Councilman José Huizar wants a severance from his co-defendant and is asking a federal judge to allow him to proceed to trial separately from ex-Deputy Mayor Raymond Chan, according to court papers obtained Thursday by City News Service.
Huizar and Chan are currently scheduled to go to trial together in February on dozens of federal counts, including racketeering. Huizar is charged as the central player in a wide-ranging City Hall corruption scheme in which he allegedly took more than $1.5 million in cash, gambling trips and escorts in exchange for his support of a planned downtown hotel project.
In a motion filed in L.A. federal court, Huizar’s attorney insists that Chan’s defense strategy would include arguing that “Huizar is guilty and Mr. Chan is not guilty by comparing and contrasting their conduct as criminal and noncriminal, respectively.”
Chan intends to argue at trial that he would not be in the case were it not for Huizar’s alleged “criminal conduct, as Mr. Chan is merely an innocent bystander who got swept up as a narrative device in a misguided RICO theory,” Huizar’s attorney says.
The former deputy mayor will “open, close and cross-examine witnesses — including Mr. Huizar if he testifies — in ways that support this theory” if the two go to trial together, according to public federal defense attorney Cuauhtemoc Ortega.
The lawyer states that he has determined a severance is necessary after reviewing the “voluminous discovery produced by the government, observing the last two trials, and weighing different tactical approaches.”
Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, said prosecutors would “respond in writing in court in due course.”
Two trials arising out of a 34-count indictment against Huizar and his associates have ended in convictions. Real estate development company Shen Zhen New World I LLC was found guilty last month of paying Huizar $1 million in bribes to obtain city approval to build a 77-story skyscraper.
In the first Huizar-related trial, a federal jury in June found Bel Air real estate developer David Lee and 940 Hill LLC, a Lee-controlled company, guilty of felony charges, including fraud and bribery, for providing $500,000 in cash to Huizar and his special assistant in exchange for their help in resolving a labor organization’s appeal of their downtown development project.
During the Shen Zhen trial, Huizar’s 83-year-old mother, his older brother, and his estranged wife testified for the prosecution.
In recommending a severance, Ortega wrote that Chan’s counsel believes that pursuing a strategy of blaming Huizar would be “sufficiently prejudicial to Huizar that it risks a mistrial.” Further, according to Ortega, Chan’s lawyer has recently advised the government and counsel for Huizar that he intends to act as a “second prosecutor” should Chan be tried together with Huizar.
Chan’s counsel has also informed the government that, based on his 54 years of experience as a criminal defense lawyer, he does not believe that Huizar can get a fair trial if he is tried together with the former deputy mayor, Ortega wrote.
The decision to grant or deny a request for severance is generally left to the discretion of the court.
Chan, a deputy mayor who oversaw economic development for ex-Mayor Eric Garcetti in 2016 and 2017, is accused along with Huizar of shaking down developers.
As part of his roles on the City Council, Huizar was the chairman of the Planning and Land Use Management Committee, commonly referred to as the PLUM Committee, which oversaw major commercial and residential development projects in the city.
Federal prosecutors have thus far convicted a total of nine defendants along with receiving over $3 million in criminal penalties to resolve the federal probe into two other major real estate development companies, as a result of Operation “Casino Loyale,” the ongoing corruption investigation into City Hall corruption being conducted by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.